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First responders reflect on deadly I-77 crash

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Training and coordination helped fire, rescue and police handle a large-scale disaster on I-77.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — More than 100 police, fire, medics, tow truck operators and road crews responded to the scene of the mass collision that killed three and injured around 30 more people unfortunate enough to be on fog-bound Interstate 77 on Easter Sunday afternoon.
The incident hadn’t claimed any more lives as of press time on Wednesday, according to emergency officials.
A civilian might expect mass confusion in the face of the 18 clusters of accidents that snared 96 vehicles, but law enforcement and emergency responders who came all the way from Pilot Mountain, N.C., the towns of Independence and Fries and Wythe and Pulaski counties worked with a unanimity of purpose, local officials say.
The common goal of taking care of the victims of the wrecks drove all responders who worked for hours on the interstate that day, said First Sgt. Mike Musser of the Virginia State Police’s Galax area office.
“It’s always, ‘What can I do to help and where do you need me?’” he said, recalling the reaction of the many personnel and volunteers who showed up to help March 31. “It’s all one community no matter what uniform you wear.”

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Officials do what they can to prepare and organize the emergency response. Both fire and rescue volunteers receive a minimum of 900 hours of training on the basics, according to Mike Mock, director of Carroll County emergency services.
Responders have to draw on their strengths where they can.
“A lot of prayer — it falls back to that and training and cooperative efforts,” Musser said.
“We know that the person depending on us, they’re depending on us to take care of them if something happens,” Mock said.
Concentrating on their work helps emergency medical technicians deal with momentous events like last Sunday’s wrecks.
“You’re focusing on the emergency itself, you’re trying to arrive safely, you’re anticipating what you need to do, then [at the scene] you begin accessing the situation itself,” Mock said.
And, of course, EMTs focus on saving lives and treating the injured.
At a mass casualty, rescue personnel walk the scene and determine which patients need immediate attention.
In a series of wrecks that stretched to around five miles, that sounds like a daunting task.
From past experience with pileups, emergency officials already had in place plans to deal with these challenges, depending heavily on the radio dispatchers, Mock said.
The multi-casualty plan allows emergency workers to assess the severity of an incident and to mobilize the amount of help needed on scene with guidelines.
The first arriving unit has the responsibility of sizing up the emergency. Based on the number of injured they find, they will radio out for assistance on scene.
A wreck at mile marker 3 with three patients may only require the response of the Cana fire department and rescue squad, if there are no other extenuating circumstances like a hazardous materials leak or cattle getting out on the interstate.
But if a responder calls in a level 2 incident, dispatchers will know the situation calls for emergency workers to provide care to between nine to 20 patients, according to the plan. Not only will they send more crews to the scene, but they'll also notify other agencies to standby at predetermined points in case more help is needed.
Depending on where the incident is, Laurel Fork firefighters might stand by at Hillsville's fire station to cover additional calls and Pipers Gap Rescue might go to Exit 14 in Hillsville and stage, or Laurel might go to Exit 19.
Staging at these points should keep the responders out of the way of traffic that might back up on the interstate.
For a level 3 emergency — with more than 20 people involved, like the chain reaction accident on Easter — dispatchers bring in responders from all over. That includes agencies from Surry County, N.C., and the Galax-Grayson EMS.
In this case, with 96 vehicles involved, just two people in each vehicle could have added up to more than 180 patients, so officials accounted for that possibility, Mock said.
Another element of the emergency plan involves having officers in charge of responsibilities like patient triage, transportation and safety on the scene.
The transportation officer, for example, could keep track of the ambulances needed and where they take the patients, according to the plan. The safety officer could call a halt to rescue efforts if the scene is too dangerous from a fuel spill, hazardous materials, lightning or stability of vehicles.
At the Easter Sunday incident, unified commanders Richard Sowers of the Cana Fire Department and Alex Easter of the Cana Rescue Squad coordinated with the Virginia State Police on response.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t praise the 911 dispatchers, too,” Mock said.
Many other agencies provided assistance, including John Shelton, Surry County’s emergency services director; Aircare helicopters; Carroll County Public Schools, which provided a bus for victims; wrecker drivers; VDOT; the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office; Hillsville Police Department and Animal Control Officer Terry Woods.
“With a unified command of law enforcement, rescue and fire, an incident can be managed to a successful conclusion,” Mock said. “In this instance, all critical patients were transported quickly from the scene and within two-and-a-half hours all patients had been transported. When you’re dealing with what they were dealing with, that’s pretty good,” the emergency services director said.
“It takes everyone in our emergency operations plan to make everything work well,” Mock said. “Everybody in our county and surrounding counties who pitched in is how it became successful.”
In the aftermath, emergency agencies plan debriefings to see if future responses can be improved further.
As far as the individual toll, different people handle the stress of momentous events like these in different ways.
“We’re not superhuman,” Musser said. “On more than one occasion, I’ve gone home and crashed and broke down and cried.”